Seven years after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, President Obama has a chance to see justice done in Haiti before he leaves office, and help address one of the island nation’s lasting humanitarian crises. That is the cholera epidemic that has killed more than 10,000 Haitians and infected at least 800,000 ― or about 8 percent of the population. Families of the victims have demanded compensation from the United Nations, which brought this deadly epidemic to Haiti; and President Obama can help ensure that they receive it.
Prior to 2010, Haiti did not have cholera ― a bacterium that can kill people within hours from dehydration due to diarrhea and vomiting ― for more than a century. Then, in October that year, UN troops from Nepal leaked some of their fecal waste into Haiti’s Artibonite river, the country’s largest supply of drinking water.
I visited a cholera treatment center in Mirebalais in 2011, and watched as victims ― some too weak to walk ― were taken into a large tent for rehydration. They were luckier than many rural residents not far away who could not get to a treatment center in time. The ones that I saw survived, but so did the cholera bacteria; the number of infections will rise this year due to the devastation brought by Hurricane Matthew in October.
The United Nations is directly responsible for this disaster. There was an outbreak of cholera in Nepal at the time; yet the Nepalese troops were not tested for infection before being deployed. Given the terrible state of Haiti’s water and sewage infrastructure (only 58 percent of Haitians have access to improved drinking water), this error would constitute criminal negligence in itself. But reports from the ground by the Associated Press, Al Jazeera, and the BBC provided more evidence that the Nepalese UN base negligently disposed of its human waste near the river.
The UN is obligated under its own rules to provide an out-of-court settlement process for these claims. But when the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (IJDH’s Haiti-based partner) tried to get compensation for the victims, the UN refused, and then retreated behind its privilege of immunity to avoid further accountability.
For six years, UN officials denied their responsibility for the cholera outbreak. But following a report by the UN’s own special rapporteur, NYU Law Professor Philip Alston, the UN finally acknowledged some responsibility. The report, as well as Alston’s speech to the UN General Assembly in October, was devastating. He found the UN’s position to be “morally unconscionable [and] legally indefensible”; that it “enshrined a double standard which exempts the UN itself from having to respect human rights”; and that it “undermined the credibility of the Organization.” The UN is finally stepping up; the Secretary-General recently apologized for the UN’s “role” in the epidemic, and announced a “new approach” that will offer to compensate the victims as well as work to eliminate the epidemic. The US has an important role to ensure that this happens.
What does the United States have to do with this terrible injustice? Unfortunately, everything. The UN troops were not brought to Haiti for relief or reconstruction after the earthquake, but in 2004, to maintain order after a coup that the US government supported against the democratically elected government of Haiti. Washington is therefore indirectly responsible for bringing the deadly bacteria to Haiti in the first place. Haitians did not ask for these troops to be deployed in their country, or for their government to be overthrown, for that matter.
The US is also at least partly responsible for the lack of water and waste treatment infrastructure that increased the damage caused by cholera. Washington blocked tens of millions of dollars of loans Haiti had qualified for from the Inter-American Development Bank in the early 2000s that were targeted for infrastructure to improve access to drinking water and sanitation services. According to internal communications released under the US Freedom of Information Act, these loans were blocked for political reasons.
The US government also supported and defended the UN in its legal claim of immunity from liability for the cholera devastation, and appears to have advised the UN Office of Legal Affairs to stick to this stonewalling position. “Without the acquiescence, if not the active support, of the United States and other Security Council members, the abdication approach would not have been adopted by the United Nations” previously, Alston noted in his report.
Since the US is the major funder of the UN budget, it is essential that the Obama administration take leadership and step forward with a commitment to support the victim compensation fund and the cholera elimination plan. Without US financial support, the effort to finally resolve this tragic crisis may well falter. President Obama pledged to “stand with Haiti” following the 2010 earthquake; the UN’s “new approach to cholera in Haiti” provides an opportunity to prove it. To ensure that US buy-in is not mere words, disbursement will need to happen quickly, or else the pledge could be imperiled by the incoming administration ― whose foreign policy objectives in many areas are hard to discern.
There are also strong development based rationales for the US to support victim compensation. There is considerable economic research demonstrating the benefits that direct cash transfers can offer not only to individuals and families, but to recipients’ communities as well. As the UN moves to compensate cholera victims, it should ensure that compensation goes directly to those who deserve it, those who often have also been devastated economically from the burden of family members’ lost income, health expenses ― and too often, burial costs. This would do much toward “meaningful poverty reduction through sustainable development” ― one of the United States’ stated primary goals in its Haiti policy, and the Obama administration should support such direct recompense as part of its commitment to cholera justice.
Compensation is a first move toward civilizing US relations with Haiti, and recognizing that Haitians are human beings with the same human rights as any other people on this planet. That would be a huge step forward.